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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                       23
from under the enemy craft, but the German airman
pressed his trigger in time. Alexei's engine lost its rhythm
and every now and again missed a beat. The entire craft
trembled as if stricken with mortal fever.
"I'm hit!" Alexei managed to plunge into the white
turbidness of a cloud and throw his pursuers off his track.
But what was to be done next? He felt the vibrations of
the wounded craft through his whole body, as if it were
not the death throes of his damaged engine but the fever
of his own body that was shaking him.
Where was the engine damaged? How long could the
plane keep in the air? Would the fuel tanks explode?
Alexei did not think these questions so much as feel them.
Feeling as if he were sitting on a charge of dynamite
with the fuse already alight, he put his craft about and
made for his own lines in order, if it came to that, to
have his remains buried by his own people.
The climax was sudden. The engine stopped. The air-
craft slid to the ground as if slipping down a steep
mountain side. Beneath it heaved the forest, like the grey-
green waves of a boundless ocean.... "Still, I won't be
taken prisoner/* was the thought that flashed through the
airman's mind when the nearest trees, merged in a con-
tinuous strip, raced under the wings of his craft. When
the forest pounced upon him like a wild animal he cut off
the throttle with an instinctive movement. A grinding crash
was heard and everything vanished in an instant, as if
he and the machine had dived into a stretch of dark,
warm, thick water.
The aircraft struck the tops of the pines as it came
down. That broke the force of the fall. Breaking several
trees, the machine fell to pieces, but an instant before that
Alexei was thrown out of the cockpit, and dropping on
to a broad-branched, century-old fir-tree, he slipped down
its branches into a deep snow-drift which the wind had
blown against the foot of the tree. That saved his life.
Alexei could not remember how long he lay there
unconscious and motionless. Vague human shadows, the
outlines of buildings and incredible machines flickered
past him, and the whirlwind speed with which they flashed
past gave him a dull, gnawing pain all over his body.
Then, something big and warm of indefinite shape